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In Support of Affirmative Action, Swarthmore Files Amicus Brief for Supreme Court Case

Along with 36 other highly selective, private liberal arts colleges and universities, Swarthmore College filed an amicus brief with the United States Supreme Court in the Fisher v. University of Texas case. The case, in which caucasian student Abigail Fisher claims that the University of Texas denied her admission because of race, examines the constitutionality of schools’ admission consideration of race.

“One files an amicus brief in order to ensure the Supreme Court is aware of the broad-reaching impact of the decision,” Assistant Vice President for Risk Management and Legal Services, Director of Equal Opportunity and Title IX Coordinator Sharmaine LaMar said. “Generally, I think it is a case of great importance and significance. The decision of the court is going to have broad-reaching impact across colleges and universities all over the country, including ours.”

The brief, which is 43 pages, provides three main arguments. The first concerns educational institutions’ interest in a diverse student body and their subsequent need to take diversity into account in admissions. The next argument claims that schools benefit in many ways by having a diverse student body and that the Supreme Court should recognize and protect these benefits. Lastly, the brief discusses that a ruling that declared affirmative action unconstitutional would deprive academic institutions of necessary academic freedom and autonomy.

“The educational benefits of a diverse and inclusive educational community can and may include enhanced pedagogy, new curricular advancements and a better learning environment for students because they are able to interact with those different than themselves in intellectual, cultural, religious and social ways,” Vice President and Dean of Admissions Jim Bock said. “These benefits prepare graduates to become more productive leaders in a complex and ever-changing society.”
LaMar argues that diversity is not only essential to classroom learning, but is also prominent in other atmospheres on campus.

“When you achieve [a diverse community], the diversity can be experienced by students in the classroom, in the relationships they build, in the experiences they have while here at the college, whether it’s service related, inside the classroom, or outside the classroom,” she said.

Enlace Co-President Dilcia Mercedes ‘15, who thinks that Swarthmore’s efforts to achieve student diversity are effective to an extent, is pleased that the college was among the schools that participated in the amicus brief. Enlace is an organization for Latino and Hispanic students.

“It’s nice to see that Swarthmore backs up what they say, at least when it comes to something big like this case,” she said. “I think that Swarthmore College is a highly regarded institution, and when they choose their voice to advocate for something that makes sense, it helps open the eyes of those who are misguided.”

In deciding Fisher, the Supreme Court could potentially overturn its own 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger ruling that upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action.

“The Grutter decision created some clarity in a lot of ways, because it validated that schools can determine how to make up their class and that diversity is a value,” LaMar said. “It’s beyond a value; it’s a core.”

Bock agrees that the case deals with issues that are particularly relevant to academic institutions such as Swarthmore. He, along with LaMar and members of Swarthmore’s student body, fears the possible consequences that Fisher v. University of Texas could bring to admission of domestic students of color at Swarthmore and across the country.

“If the ruling is in [Fisher’s] favor, it has the potential to reverse the hard-earned gains of our campaigns and struggles towards education,” Mercedes said. “I believe that the number of minority applicants might stay the same, but the number that get admitted will drop because only an outstanding few will get in.”

LaMar also worries about how a decision that considers race in admissions unconstitutional would affect the idea of a diverse student body. In the event that the Supreme Court rules affirmative action unconstitutional, she believes schools will have to seek new ways to achieve the necessary diversity, which LaMar thinks will be a challenge.

Paul Cato ’14, Co-Advocate of Achieving Black & Latino Leaders of Excellence (ABLLE) is also happy at Swarthmore’s involvement in the case.

“Our country seems to be moving closer and closer towards adopting a post-racial view of the world, in which the impact and importance of race is not understood, acknowledged or appreciated,” Cato said. “Cases like this run the risk of pushing us down this path all the more as our government will have frowned upon the consideration of race when making decisions.”

Swarthmore’s admission process, Bock explained, is holistic and considers multiple factors when considering a student’s application. While race can be a factor in the decision to admit an applicant, it is never the sole determinant; neither are test scores or grades.

“We are committed to a comprehensive review of each individual file, and in fact, Justice [Sandra Day] O’Connor referenced the liberal arts approach to admissions in the majority opinion in the most recent Grutter case,” Bock said.

The case was presented in front of the Supreme Court on October 12. A decision is expected sometime before the end of term in June.

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